Allegation tied to 2 top Miss. education leaders

Published 10:00 pm Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mississippi’s commissioner of higher education and the interim president of Mississippi State University are under investigation following an allegation of misconduct — an allegation that is itself shrouded in mystery.

The nature of the alleged misconduct is not clear, but it comes at a time when the state College Board is interviewing candidates to be Mississippi State’s next president.

The university’s interim president, Vance Watson, wants the job permanently. He issued a statement Friday saying he is the victim of “vicious public attacks” — though the attacks he referred to have not yet been made public — and that the search for a new MSU leader is being influenced by people who want to discredit him.

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“I’m unable to comment on any specific allegations made against me because they have not been brought to me for an open and honest exchange,” Watson said.

State Higher Education Commissioner Tom Meredith, who assumed the top higher education post in 2005, was out of town and did not immediately respond to a message left Friday at his Jackson office. Meredith and the College Board oversee Mississippi’s eight public universities.

While the source or nature of the allegation has not been made public, Lisa Shoemaker, a spokeswoman for the state auditor’s office, confirmed the agency received “an allegation involving a (state College Board) employee and Mississippi State University,” but said the agency “can’t comment on any ongoing investigation.” She would not elaborate.

College Board President Amy Whitten issued a statement Friday, saying the board is “aware of the allegations” and will discuss the issue Saturday during an emergency conference call.

“Both Dr. Meredith and Dr. Watson have exemplary records of lifelong service to higher education, and the Board holds both of them in the highest professional regard,” Whitten said.

Watson said Friday he is requesting to appear before the College Board at its next meeting.

“I would like to have the opportunity to provide testimony as to the vicious public attacks being made on my personal credibility by certain individuals,” he said.

The search for Mississippi State’s new president has been criticized for what some consider its secretive nature. The names of the candidates being considered for the job are not made public.

Still, the College Board maintains that the search process is “transparent and representative-based,” said Annie Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the College Board. She said the reason the names of the candidates are kept secret is to “protect the applicant’s job as well as his or her home institution.”